It’s not easy being a sad clown: Everyone hates them, they fail at everything they do, and they’re sick and tired of serving as everyone’s hackneyed metaphor. Sluggo—a middle-aged sad sack with lapel flowers, striped baggy pants, and supersized Adidases—whines about all this in the opening harangue of Jeffrey M. Jones’s A Man’s Best Friend. This self-pitying frown clown pretty much sums up Jones’s play when he confesses to the audience that “I could become a sympathetic character, but it would be wrong.”
The characters in constellation around Sluggo prove equally unlikable: his horny, tumor-plagued brother Steve; a nightstick-happy policewoman; a smug, callous swami; and a silly angel who addresses their innermost needs. As the kooks in this funny bunch kick stuffed dogs and beat each other with rubber clubs, Jones tries to gesture to the ubiquity of psychological pain and to the unreal qualities of suffering. Whenever Sluggo delivers a swift one to his canine companion, he does it hard and unclownishly, revealing rancidness behind the half-painted face.
But Jones finds little to propel one overstretched scene of psycholinguistic fantasia to another. Too often he limits the situations to banal psychosexual territory—there’s the requisite masturbation scene—with occasional forays into more far-out realms (squid and tentacled babies). His anti-rational writing promises to expose the mind traps language leads us into, but the wordplay doesn’t stimulate as it should. Instead the inane, elliptical dialogue keeps events, tragicomic or otherwise, from transpiring. “There is no I in human suffering,” Sluggo’s sometime girlfriend proclaims, “but there is a ‘man’ and a ‘ring.’ ” Lines like this add to a swelling sense of obliqueness, and instead of forming an engaging rhythm or shape, the characters’ fractured thoughts and feelings keep returning us to a circus we’ve seen before.